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Mon, 2015-05-11 09:12

Evaluating Jumping Talent in Young Horses

Authored By: Dr. Maren Engelhardt
Sweden's Louise Svensson-Jähde riding the then 6-year-old Trakehner gelding Maybach, who received a 9.0 score as one of the highest scoring horses during the XC phase of the Bundeschampionat in 2012.

Jumping from speed is a hallmark feature of eventing and finding young horses that already exhibit good form for this type of “run and jump” action is a key aspect of building up talents for our sport.

It is easy to get carried away by the spectacular scope that we see a lot of in modern event horses, especially in the young horse classes or talent shows. Many carry significant show jumper genetics and jump as such – with tremendous scope and power, excellent technique and bascule to clear pretty much any obstacle in their way. What is not so easy to foresee is how a horse with such an elaborate jump might be able to learn to jump more economically, still clearing maximum heights, but in a more efficient manner. Why is that important? Here are some thoughts:

  1. Jumps cost effort, which translates into energy depletion. The higher your horse jumps, the more energy it uses. This won’t hurt you much on a 5min course, but it can prevent you from seeing the end of a 12 min course.
  2. Wear and tear. Jumping is a high impact event for the body and can have long-term detrimental effects on joints, ligaments and tendons. Horses that do not use their bodies very well over jumps (ideally, think “catlike”) - or that exhibit too much of a jump in terms of height, airtime and impact when landing - are at risk for early injury or breakdown.
  3. Jumps cost time. Again this may not mean much on a shorter course, but consider this: a slow take-off, long airtime, and a heavy landing mean around 2-3 seconds more per jump. That can add of up to 1-2 minutes at the end of a long course. This means you either need a fast horse that doesn’t tire easily and you can make up for the lost time on the run, or you’re stuck with perpetual time faults.

When you observe young horses that have not yet received a lot of training and are pretty much the raw package, you will see a wide range of jumping styles. Free jumping can be a good initial indicator, but I would steer clear of reading too much into it. I have seen my fair share of horses that free jump over the moon and can’t put it together under the rider, and vice versa. However, free jumping will tell you a lot about the horse’s attitude, willingness, character and yes, its brain. While naturally “intrinsic” features, these will actually have a big impact on how a horse will jump later in life. Young horses that overjump obstacles are not necessarily bad choices for cross-country. If they land softly (you can’t hear much more than a soft thump, not a loud crash), have good bascule and are balanced, they stand a good chance of overjumping just because of inexperience.

The jump phases

When a horse jumps, it is essentially just inserting a very large canter stride into its run. When you think of jumps as strides, their “anatomy” becomes quite clear.

Phase 1 is the approach, during which the horse is focused, has his eye on the jump, and reacts to the obstacle in front of him by collecting into a frame that will allow for take-off (finding the right take-off spot is a chapter all in its own). Hallmarks of the collecting phase are a slight longitudinal shortening of the body, dipping of the withers, and further reach under the center of gravity with the hind end (panel A+B in the above image), most notably achieved by a mobile, well-placed lumbosacral joint (LS). For jumping, the LS region plays a significant part. It serves as the major pivot for flexion and extension of the longitudinal axis of the body, the two most important aspects of collecting for a jump and clearing a wide jump that requires maximum stretch. Horses that are mobile in this area have better ability to perform these two opposite movements in quick succession, hence jumping more efficiently.

Phase 2 is the actual take-off, which requires the hind end to reach as far under the center of gravity as possible to allow sufficient push-off. Again, the more mobile the LS is, the better the horse can reach under itself (panel C).

In Phase 3 the horse is reaching the apex of the jump. It has ideal form with a round topline, high elevation of its forearm, and a maximum extension of its neck, which serves as the major balance point of the body (panel D). It is this phase that will show you if a horse can jump economically (not too high) and with such sufficient body posture that it actually becomes less of an aerodynamic resistance.

Phase 4 starts after the horse has started its descent into the landing area, if you will. It has a clear view of the ground behind the jump, extends its forearm in sufficient time to reach the ground - not too steep behind the vertical or too far away. A good flight curve over the jump will actually facilitate a good landing (panel E).

Phase 5 is then the actual landing and back-to-gallop phase (panel F+G). This is a key phase, because it determines how quickly you will get back into your galloping rhythm after a jumping effort and how much time you can save (or will lose). Some horses have the tendency to crash, literally, to the point of losing several seconds with each jump. What you are looking for is a horse that can uncoil its body quickly from the landing and immediately propel itself forward with minimal effort but maximal outcome in terms of speed. This is a major energetic effort! The softer you’re landing, the sooner the horse is back to running instead of still recovering from the last jump.

Please consider this: While looking at single phases may be a good way to start training your eye, do not interpret too much into single still images. The point is that the jump with all its phases is a fluid motion and can only be judged as such – from a distance, looking at the big picture.

As far as selecting young horses based on their jump, please also consider that you should not prioritize speed over a jump above good bascule (and technique). The ideal eventer has good bascule and a very quick front arm. It does not jump with his shoulder locked, his front arm under its body or overjumps to compensate for poor technique. Some of this is trainable and it is up to you to decide whether you are willing to take a gamble or not, but speed over a jump is not the one all important attribute a good cross country jumper should exhibit – the big picture counts and apart from technique, the fluidity and effortlessness with which different jumps and combinations are cleared will determine the successful eventer in the end.

Dr. Maren Engelhardt is the fourth generation of a horse breeding and competing family and divides her professional life as a neuroanatomist and geneticist between Germany and the United States. Maren grew up in Germany in an environment of young horse training and showing, has taken horses through the lower levels to the Bundeschampionat and up through the two-star level of eventing. She has earned the German FN’s Silver Medal as a competition rider and instructor. Now her passion is freelancing as a writer and speaker, especially on matters of “blood” horse breeding for eventing, publishing regularly in print and online equestrian media in Europe and North America. Her horse career has put her in the saddle of pretty much every breed on the planet and combined with her skills as a scientist, this has added a new perspective to her goal of better understanding what should drive the breeding of modern day eventing horses.

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